As global leaders gather in Paris - a different Paris now - for epic climate talks this week, the US business community is divided. It really shouldn't be.
In 2014, renewable sources of energy already accounted for about 10% of total U.S. energy consumption and 13% of electricity generation. In Italy renewable energy accounted for 45% of power generation; growing these numbers is far from impossible. And the business case for energy efficiency measures is solid; one recent report says the world's largest and fastest-growing economies can save $2.8 trillion through efficiencies while making a big dent in greenhouse gas emissions.
Other countries, such as Germany, have shown that it is possible to have economic growth and energy security while phasing out fossil fuels. The ICT industry says innovation is now decoupling economic growth from emissions growth. And innovative technology makes renewable energy cost-effective even in times of low oil prices. The main reasons the business community should stand on the side of clean energy innovation are that it will, in the long run, save companies money, provide better energy security, reduce healthcare costs, and reduce costs associated with having to adapt to a warmer climate. These include the costs of food and water shortages, coastal real estate damage, and many others.
The US should be a pioneer in innovation, not a country that resists change.
In an attempt to better understand the science, I decided to have a conversation with an actual climate scientist.
Dr. James W. C. White is a paleoclimatologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Partly through studying ice, he looks at what happened during other carbon cycles thousands and even millions of years ago in order to make assumptions about what could happen today. He is particularly interested in abrupt carbon and temperature changes, trying to understand their causes and effects. Given that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen in a relatively short time from 280 parts per million at the start of the Industrial Revolution to 400 parts per million today, he is particularly curious about what the earth looked like the last time CO2 stood at 400 parts per million, which he estimates at 3 to 5 million years ago (back then the carbon was from geological cycles), and what happened when temperature changes occurred suddenly. Because CO2 is a "greenhouse gas," meaning it absorbs the sun's energy and releases it into the atmosphere, rising CO2 makes the earth's temperature rise.
Dr. White told me that the last time CO2 stood at 400 parts per million, the earth was already much warmer. "There was no Arctic sea ice in the summer, maybe even in the winter, and big trees were growing all the way to the top of Canada, so that was habitable. It was really hot around the Equator. Sea level was about 20 meters higher, and 20 meters is a shocking number."
Dr. White stressed that we seem to be totally unprepared for what could happen to sea levels as temperatures rise. "With 20 meters of sea level rise, we would lose a state: Delaware," he warned. "Over the history of the earth there has been about a 10 degree dynamic range of temperature," he explained. "It's been about 5 degrees warmer than today, and it's been about 5 degrees colder than today, when there was a big ice age. These are rough numbers. The sea level change that goes along with a 10 degree temperature change is 200 meters."
Ok, this caught my attention. I wanted to know what will happen to sea level and when. "We're well beyond asking IF sea level will rise," was his answer. "We're asking how fast it will rise and how far it will rise. It's pretty clear that we've committed ourselves, at this level of CO2, to a very long retreat, as sea level keeps rising."
What we don't know is when we will have to retreat from coastal areas, and maybe move north into Canada as it gets hotter. What we do know is that we have lots of power to minimize greenhouse gas emissions. Remember ozone? We decided collectively there was a problem, we found a solution, and we got rid of spraycans and took Freon-12 out of refrigerators. It worked.
We can still mitigate climate change, too. If the business community gets on board and takes the lead.